As revolution sweeps across the Middle East at a dizzying pace, cries for freedom, equality and an improved standard of living ring out, touching millions around the world and bringing hope to millions more. Finally, their voices are being heard. Progress is being made.
Still, an important segment of the population goes unheard as they cannot participate in high-profile protests or even voice their grievances and concerns. The mentally and physically disabled are underrepresented throughout the Middle East and there are few signs of this changing any time soon. Progress is at a standstill.
Everywhere, that is, except Israel.
Over the past few years, Israel has launched a quiet revolution of its own. Residential and treatment centers for the disabled, once funded and run exclusively by private individuals and initiatives, have now garnered government funding, support and participation.
Influential Israeli corporations in the fields of technology, defense and telecommunications are making projects to support the disabled population a priority, contributing significant amounts of time and money to the cause.
In addition, public discourse on equal access for the disabled has set in motion a heroic effort by the management of thousands of eateries, malls, schools, office buildings and theaters to ensure that their facilities are accessible to one and all. And the discussion extends well beyond government offices, corporate boardrooms and activism meetings.
A recent conference in Jerusalem gathered together religious leaders, teachers and celebrated thinkers to publicly address the need to include the disabled in religious life. In an effort to “ground” their soldiers, institutions like the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet have all made assisting the disabled a crucial part of the training process for advanced officers.
So, what brought about these dramatic changes?
I believe the key has been a national re-evaluation of life and what makes it worth living. Israel has transitioned from its obsession with identifying one’s abilities – due, in part, to a history fraught with trials, persecution and an ongoing struggle for survival – to a deeper commitment to the value of human life.
Instead of gauging one’s worth according to his or her military profile, we have come to the realization that every human life should be treasured, even those who will never contribute to society. An example from my own life should help clarify the point.
Many of the children in my care suffer from severe disabilities as a result of complications during childbirth. Extreme prematurity, prolonged lack of oxygen and other traumas have left these children in a very difficult state. They are the babies you don’t normally hear about. They aren’t the ones who “passed away too soon,” or the miracle children celebrated far and wide. They are born injured and their limitations are extreme. They will never speak, write or walk on their own. They will never earn a college degree or hold a steady job. They are completely dependent on our care.
There was a time when families were so ashamed of such children they would leave them at our doorstep and disappear, sometimes even fleeing the country. But today, this is simply unheard of in Israel. The families of disabled children, and the communities in which they live, see a soul – like yours or mine – trapped in a damaged body. Not something to be ashamed of but rather someone who needs more love and support. This is the principal upon which our silent revolution continues to thrive.
As Major General (res.) Doron Almog, one of the most vocal champions of the disabled population in Israel, has said, “Our generation will be judged by the way we treat the weakest members of society.”
Not surprisingly, the revolution has benefited all who embrace it on many levels. When one spends less time seeking out those who can advance his own position and more time seeking out opportunities to give of himself, life becomes more rewarding and truly worth living.
As an entrepreneur who supports our work recently said, “I have never seen such an investment in a project that exhibits no clear results for a bottom line, and yet the results for those involved are truly invaluable.”
While the revolution marches on, progressing at a pace previously unimaginable, Israel still has one more hurdle overcome. We must find our voice and share our story with the rest of the Middle East, with the world. In short, the revolution can no longer move forward in silence.